Stage 31 – Moldova & Transnistria: Bessarabia
Moldova occupies much of Bessarabia, a small chunk of Eastern Europe lying between the Prut and Dniester Rivers. It is a small country on the margins of the Former Soviet Union and the European Union, distinguishable from greater Romania (with which it has close cultural and linguistic ties) only by its history of Russian influence; obscure even to most Europeans and famed only as being Europe’s poorest country. As an area over which empires have long clashed, Moldova remains divided despite its modest size, incorporating a number of ethnic minorities and the de facto independent (though internationally unrecognised) state of Transnistria, where ethnic Slavs (Ukrainians and Russians) outnumber Moldovans. Having left neighbouring Romania with rather negative impressions in 2007 on the outward leg of the trip, I would be pleasantly surprised by Moldova; a friendly, calm and bucolic little corner of Europe which would be the final ‘new’ country on the initial four-and-a-half year part of the Odyssey.
It’s early in the evening of the 17th October 2011, and I’ve just left the far south-east of Ukraine. Ahead of me is a one-kilometre stretch of Moldova and beyond that, across the Danube, is Romania and the EU. I however turn north in the port and border town of Giurgiuleşti and drive on quiet country roads passing small villages and long stretches of open agricultural land, soon entering the autonomous republic of Gagauzia. I stop for the night in the Gagauz capital of Comrat where I am hosted by Adam, a Fullbright Fellow from Indiana who is studying the Gagauz language.
Comrat is a quiet, though rather bland and impoverished provincial town, but through Adam I am introduced to a number of locals including Anna, an ebullient widow well into her sixties who is something of an adoptive mother to Adam, and who serves us endless quantities of good home-made wine in her cottage on the edge of town. I’m also introduced to a local TV cameraman who films a short piece on my journey by car through Moldova, which starts with me staggering around Anna’s garden looking at the grapes from which the wine I have been drinking is made, then cuts to me pulling out of town in the truck two days later. The piece went on to air on the national evening news.
Adam and I take a minibus south out of Comrat to the village of Beşalma, which is Gagauzia’s cultural capital and home to the Museum of the Gagauz People. Beşalma is located in rolling, bucolic autumnal countryside planted with vineyards and maize, a scene which typifies rural Moldova. We walk from the main road past horsecarts and post-end-of-life European cars to reach the village, which has a few administrative buildings, the Soviet-era museum whose mosaic-work of Gagauz designs is slowly collapsing from its walls, and a beautiful six-bladed wooden windmill on a gentle rise overlooking the rambling village houses and surrounding fields.
We are shown around the village museum by a Gagauz lady who has a very Turkish face, with lumpen features, thick, masculine eyebrows and a heavy nose, and hands stained purple from recently pressing grapes. We’re directed to the history of the Gagauz people, who are Turkic Orthodox Christians. Although their origins are obscure, as is the origin of the term ‘Gagauz’, they are thought to be descendants of Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchak or Seljuk Turks who had migrated to the Balkans centuries ago. In the early nineteenth century the Gagauz migrated into Bessarabia from north-eastern Bulgaria in face of religious persecution from the Ottomans. Following the ceding of Bessarabia to the Russian Empire in 1812, the Orthodox Gagauz were encouraged to settle in place of expelled Muslim Tatars and Nogays. As a linguistic and ethnic minority, the Gagauz became somewhat Russified and highly assimilated into Soviet society, and resisted independence on the grounds of promotion of Moldovan (Romanian) as the only national language, and amid fears of Moldova joining Romania. Though initially calling for outright independence, following negotiations with the Moldovan parliament the Gagauz accepted autonomy within Moldova in an essentially peaceful process quietly lauded as a successful resolution to ethnic conflict.
I leave Adam and Gagauzia after three very pleasant days and head north towards the centre of Moldova, through gently rolling hills, vineyards and muddy, geese-filled villages on quiet, tree-lined roads. I’ve immediately come to like Moldova which, without the hordes of tourists of Crimea or Odessa feels like a slice of pre-modern Europe, similar to Romania but without the pervading air of seediness. Moldova is certainly not a country full of sights of interest, but after stopping for a night in Chișinău I continue north, getting lost on rough country roads but eventually being steered by friendly locals to the village of Trebujeni and the archaeological site of Old Orhei, which might possibly pass as Moldova’s prime tourist attraction. Old Orhei is set within the gentle sweep of a time-smoothed limestone escarpment above a deeply incised meander of the Răut River, not far from its confluence with the Dniester. In this naturally defensible location, meagre remains can be found from throughout Moldova’s history; from the Palaeolithic, through to the Dacians, Mongols and on to the modern period.
Old Orhei is an enchanting place and I walk up onto the escarpment to find a very picturesquely sited orthodox church and just beyond, an almost pagan looking carved stone cross against which a rather grief-stricken woman is leaning for strength. It’s a mild late-October day, surely one of the last mild days of the year and the long, reddish sunlight has an air of benign finality, casting the surrounding landscape in pastel shades of yellow and brown. Below me in the sweep of fields enclosed by the escarpment, peasants busy themselves gathering in maize, transporting the remaining stalks on trotting horse-carts to be stacked in conical ricks in the village. In the rock below me, very well hidden, is a cave monastery dug out by orthodox monks in the thirteenth century, though I find the door closed and so scramble down the steep bank for a view. Here, in the rock face are a number of glazed windows and a door, out of which a slightly grizzled-looking elderly priest emerges, who rinses his hands and then asks me in English where I am from. Clambering back up a narrow trail, I find the door now unlocked, and descend through the rock into the Stygian chambers of the monastery. The priest leads me around, pointing out eleven rock-hewn sleeping cells for the monks who had previously used the monastery until the eighteenth century, after which the monastery had fallen out of use until restoration work commenced in 1996.
Savouring this Moldovan experience, I return to Chișinău, the national capital. Chișinău, known as Kishinev to Russian speakers, was transformed from a small town to provincial capital upon the ceding of Bessarabia to Tsarist Russia in 1812, which set the stage for the emergence of an independent country. Moldova’s statehood may be traced yet further back in time; to the fourteenth century when the principality of Moldavia was established, incorporating Bessarabia and areas of what is now eastern Romania, and whose leader from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Stephen The Great, is now the national hero of independent Moldova. Despite putting up an initially successful resistance, Moldavia eventually became an Ottoman tributary in the mid sixteenth century, until incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1812 as part of Russia’s gains against the Ottomans. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Bessarabia returned to Romanian control, was then ceded back the Soviet Union in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, only to be re-occupied by Romania in 1941, finally returning to Soviet control at the end of the war.
Chișinău gleams like a vision of the future as one approaches it from the timeless, rolling Moldovan farmland. As one enters the city however, the quaint rural squalor of muddy streets and tumbledown cottages gives way to a rather less attractive urban squalor; of broken asphalt, ageing apartment buildings, reckless traffic, alcoholics, poverty and screaming inequality. But these shabby suburbs conceal a far more upbeat centre which I soon find myself warming to.
I spend two days exploring Chișinău, walking from my host Artur’s apartment to the Eternity Memorial, a pyramid made up from five red, stylised rifles in remembrance of the years 1941 to 1945, built by the Soviets and pointedly neglecting the early war years when Moldova’s fate was secretly decided between the Soviets and Nazis. Adjacent to the memorial is a beautiful, leafy cemetery, entered through a crumbling Neoclassical arch and containing an intriguing cross-section of Chișinău’s former residents. Numerous Jewish graves are scant evidence that Chișinău was at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the major centres of European Jewry, though through pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration from the USSR the community has almost vanished today. Subtle reminders of their presence persist however in a distinctly Moorish appearance to some of the windows and doorways of the city’s more elegant central streets.
Chișinău’s main focus is Stephen the Great Boulevard, along which one finds Cathedral Square with the Triumphal Arch built in 1840 to commemorate the Russian victory over the Ottomans, and behind this the Nativity Cathedral, centre of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. Opposite is the huge, Soviet Government Building and statue of Stephen the Great, bearing a cross as ‘True Champion of the Christian Faith’ for his victory against the Ottomans, an image featured on every Moldovan banknote. A number of grandiose building projects can be found further along the boulevard, which do a good job of giving Chișinău the air of a national capital, though on close inspection some of these appear to be unfinished; long-stalled construction projects with falling, tattered veils and peeling siding.
As capital of the Bessarabian Region of the Russian Empire, Chișinău experienced rapid population growth in the nineteenth century and despite heavy destruction in the Second World War, retains an elegant centre with avenues lined by plane, poplar and walnut trees, to which I find myself often returning to stroll in. Away from here much of the city bears the architectural hallmark of the rapid post-war Soviet expansion, such as the towering fourteen-storey apartment complexes which flank Dacia Boulevard in the south-east of the city and are known locally as the ‘City Gates’. Other relics of the Soviet era have poignantly gone to seed, such as the abandoned circus with its grimy windows and broken front steps. Nowhere however do I feel any real sense of iniquity and despite the obvious poverty and inequality, the atmosphere of the city is friendly, relaxed and fun. Chișinău has more grace than most Soviet cities, with a hint of European flair, though has far fewer pretensions than most Eastern European cities. I could almost imagine myself living here.
I leave Chișinău on a beautiful autumn day passing through the ‘City Gates’ on a wide, divided road heading south-east towards the Dniester. My destination is Tiraspol, officially Moldova’s second largest city though in reality the capital of the wholly unrecognised state of Transnistria, which has its own government, police, army, customs, postal service and even currency, despite being a tiny sliver of land lying mostly between the left bank of the Dniester and the nearby Ukrainian border. I pass an outer checkpoint just beyond the Moldovan city of Anenii Noi, then shortly after arrive at the Transnistrian Border. My initial impression, as I am asked to fill in a migration card, is of how unusually polite and professional the immigration staff are. Next, a female customs officer who speaks perfect English asks for my vehicle registration document and begins to enter details into a computer system to calculate an entry tax. Frighteningly large numbers are displayed, but I finally pay just fourteen US Dollars, valid for two months, and after a cursory inspection of the truck I am free to enter Transnistria. I soon stop on the edge of the city of Bender which, though lying on the right bank of the Dniester and officially a buffer-zone, is in reality Transnistria’s second largest city.
Bender’s one and only sight is a striking fortress which marks the city’s historical position as a customs post between Moldavia and the Crimean Tatars. The fortress lies on the edge of a large base of the Transnistrian military and has only very recently been opened to foreigners. To reach it I must double back from the bridge across the Dniester, then find an unmarked side road leading to a trolleybus factory which is emblazoned with large and well preserved Soviet murals of a worker and a map of the Soviet Union. From here I must walk along a muddy, overgrown path escorted by a guard, past large, neglected factories lined by fir trees and dank, abandoned barracks whose roofs support mature poplar trees. After several minutes I reach the fortress, in front of which are busts of heroes from the Russo-Turkish wars, with fine views east across the Dniester. Initially a Moldavian fort made from wood, the current structure, which is undergoing restoration, dates from the sixteenth century and its construction under the Ottomans is said to have been overseen by Mimar Sinan, the architect responsible for many of İstanbul’s most beautiful buildings. The outer walls of the fortress have largely disappeared, but its inner keep, despite the rather clumsy restoration work remains very striking, with thick, high crenelated stone walls and towers of round, square and octagonal section topped by fluted terracotta-tiled roofs.
Back in the truck, I re-navigate the overcomplicated Soviet traffic system on the outskirts of Bender and cross the bridge into Transnistria proper, where I am very soon in the capital, Tiraspol. That Transnistria exists as a de jure part of Moldova, rather than Ukraine (which would seem more logical when looking at national boundaries) is due the the creation of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in the early twentieth century, which was carved out of the Ukrainian ASSR with a view to the Soviet Union re-acquiring Bessarabia. Thus, when the Soviets finally regained Bessarabia in 1940 and created the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the precursor of modern Moldova, it included the thin sliver of land along the left bank of the Dniester known as Transnistria.
During the final years of the USSR, as Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost set the course for greater autonomy of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, Moldovan became the only official language of the Moldavian SSR in a move highly unpopular with the republic’s Slavic and Turkic minorities. With independence looming, the expectation for the Moldavian SSR to re-join Romania was widespread and highly unpopular with non-Moldovans. Much like the Gagauz in the south, Transnistria’s Slavic majority claimed independence, but whereas the Gagauz conflict was resolved peacefully, tensions between Transnistria and Moldova escalated to violence in 1990 and into full-blown civil war for five months of 1992, which ended in a cease fire and Transnistria’s status as a de facto independent state.
Tiraspol’s name derives from ancient Tyras, the Greek name for the Dniester River and also the name of a long-gone nearby settlement. The city’s history officially begins with its establishment in 1792 by Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famous for his victories against the Ottomans, and for having never lost a battle. My first impressions of Tiraspol are of manicured Soviet order, with meticulously maintained Soviet-era administrative buildings, monuments and nomenclature in Cyrillic script. Outside the large red and grey parliament building is a pink granite statue of Lenin with a billowing cape, and across the street a Soviet T34 tank from the Second World War. Next is an equestrian statue of Suvorov who, despite being born in Moscow, is the Transnistrian national hero and features on all Transnistrian Rouble banknotes. A little further along 25th October Avenue, Tiraspol’s main drag, comes the House of Soviets; an imposing masterpiece of Soviet architecture, outside of which is another bust of Lenin on a pedestal. At the end of this rather grandiose strip the road turns past the entrance to Victory Park, which is now in riotous autumnal colour, then soon enters the semi-rural suburbs which surround Tiraspol on all sides.
My host in Transnistria is Vova, who is of mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage, and who works for the Transnistrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tiraspol, but lives with his grandparents in the nearby village of Karagash where I arrive in the evening before Vova gets home. Here I am met by Igor, Vova’s jolly grandfather who welcomes me into his garden, showing me his beloved doe goat, his pigs, chickens and other goats, their cat Terry and their smart Belgian shepherd who doubles as a doorbell. Inside, the house is extremely comfortable and my lasting memory of Transnistria is of long evenings at the dinner table eating Vova’s grandmother’s home-cooked food, drinking young home-made red wine and eating home-grown walnuts.
I make a short trip out of Tiraspol, taking a footbridge over the Dniester and then a minibus which drops me outside another Lenin bust in the large village of Kitskany, one of the oldest villages in the region. Here I visit the Holy Ascension monastery with its candy-cane red and white door and window pillars, then walk up out of the village to an obelisk commemorating the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, whereby the Red Army recaptured the Moldavian SSR from the Axis Forces in 1944. It’s a beautifully serene spot overlooking the sloping farmland above the Dniester. Transnistria seems quite unlike the other frozen conflict zones of the Former USSR which I have visited; there is no obvious hatred or even animosity, no tensely sealed border or fanatical national rhetoric. Instead, I find a welcoming, safe and peaceful country with a gentle atmosphere of removal from the rigours of the outside world. From Kitskany I catch another minibus on to the centre of Bender, where bullet holes from the civil war are still visible in some buildings. After stopping in a bar for a bottle of local beer one of the cheapest I have ever drunk, I take the trolleybus back across the Dniester and into Tiraspol.
After saying farewell to Vova and his lovely grandparents, I spend my last day in Transnistria driving through much of the country, following the Dniester upstream through the villages and towns along the left bank of the river, which separates Transnistria from Moldova proper in long, sinuous meanders. I stop in Dubossary, where the Civil War broke out, then later in Ribnitsa, Transnistria’s third largest city where in the late afternoon I re-cross the Dniester, with a final view of the city’s apartments reflected in the blue water of the river.
On the far side of the river is the town of Rezina, situated on three terraces overlooking the river, where I stop for the night. In the morning I take a minibus south to the village of Saharna where the Holy Trinity monastery nestles in the limestone escarpment alongside the Dniester. Behind the monastery I walk up into the hills, past cave cells and a cold, spring-fed baptismal pool, up into the hills where locals claim there is a footprint of the Virgin Mary in the native rock. It’s a beautiful autumnal walk through yellowing oak forest under deep blue skies, with sweeping views back across into Transnistria, and I spend more than an hour dozing in the sun.
I leave Rezina the following day, driving initially south to the cave monastery in Ţipova. Like Old Orhei the monastery here is hewn out of limestone cliffs, this time in a slightly less dramatic location overlooking the Dniester, but it is said to be older, dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries, and also to be the place where Stephen the Great was married. Turning north from Ţipova I head for the Ukrainian border, passing more bucolic villages on the way to Soroca, which overlooks a historical crossing point on the Dniester. Soroca has another beautiful fortress smaller but more unusual than that of Bender. Built initially out of wood by Stephen the Great in 1499, it was rebuilt in the following century to be a perfect circle with five equally spaced towers, forming a part of the line of defences along the Dniester from Akkerman (Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, in Ukrainian Bessarabia), through Bender, and continuing north, up into what is now western Ukraine.
I leave Moldova on a cool, foggy morning, driving the final stretch from Soroca north-west, parallel to the Dniester, to the border town of Otaci where I cross the bridge into Ukraine. Moldova has been a pleasantly surprising country; clearly very different from neighbouring Ukraine with its strong Romanian influence, friendly, welcoming and wonderfully tranquil, despite the obvious poverty and the frozen conflict with Transnistria. Ahead of me lies the very final stage of my initial four-and-a-half year trip, through the medieval cities and Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, before I must make my rather dreaded return to Western Europe.